Over the last 25 years, Hyundai Motor Co. has transformed itself from an also-ran purveyor of lackluster econoboxes into a stylish leader in high-tech, high-quality cars.
Yet one area in which the South Korean giant has yet to match, let alone surpass, its U.S., European and Japanese rivals is ride and feel. Now, Hyundai is bearing down on that challenge.
For the last three years, a team of select engineers at Hyundai’s sprawling Namyang technical center outside Seoul has been toiling on a project to spice up the brand’s ho-hum performance.
Its mission: Develop a toolbox of technologies that can be deployed in production vehicles as early as 2017 to zest up handling and performance, engineers say. They are looking at across-the-board changes that encompass lightweighting, improved rigidity and lower centers of gravity.
As they tinker with the new technologies, they are funneling them into a series of concept cars that serve as rolling laboratories for engineering better Hyundai road cars.
Their efforts are just one part of a palpable performance push sweeping the company.
Hyundai recently rebooted motorsports activities by entering the World Rally Championship. It brought in Lotus engineers to help Hyundai’s engineers in Korea tune the redesigned Genesis to satisfy American and European expectations for driving feel. It also opened a European technical center for testing cars on Germany’s famed Nurburgring race circuit.
The aspiring Korean brand is even mulling its own “N” performance subbrand.
And to orchestrate it all, Hyundai poached BMW AG veteran Albert Biermann, former chief engineer of the German luxury brand’s M performance unit. Biermann started April 1 as an executive vice president, charged with injecting BMW magic into Hyundai’s ride and handling.
If Hyundai can replicate BMW’s successful M formula, it will pose a big challenge to competitors. But migrating those qualities from the top-shelf Genesis to more-mainstream models won’t be easy for a young brand with scant racing heritage and one that only developed its first proprietary engine in 1991.
“They have steadily improved their content, technology and design,” said Eric Lyman, main industry analyst at TrueCar Inc. “The next phase of the brand’s transformation will come down to product execution, including ride, handling and performance.”
Biermann’s arrival could be a tipping point. Design at Hyundai and its Kia sibling brand took a huge leap forward when Hyundai Motor Group hired Peter Schreyer, another German ace, from Audi AG in 2006. Biermann will be the group’s No. 2-ranked foreign executive after Schreyer.
Hyundai entered its “next phase” in 2012, when the carmaker established its High Performance Vehicle Development Center at Namyang. In fact, the N branding used on Hyundai’s i20 World Rally car and earmarked for future high-performance vehicles stands for the N in Namyang.